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Joe McPhee / John Butcher: At The Hill Of James Magee (Trost Records)

Two legendary saxophonists--New York's Joe McPhee on alto and UK's John Butcher on tenor--meet at "The Hill" in the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, where artist James Magee is building a set of raised buildings arranged on the compass points to house his work, providing fascinating resonant properties for McPhee & Butcher's exceptional interaction. ... Click to View


FULL BLAST: Rio [VINYL] (Trost Records)

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Axioms: Manifestations (Evil Clown)

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Derek Bailey & Cyro Baptista: Cyro [VINYL 2 LPs] (Honest Jons Records)

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Derek Bailey / Tony Coe: Time [VINYL 2 LPs] (Honest Jons Records)

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Phill Niblock: T H I R [DVD] (Von)

Named for "Ten Hundred Inch Radii", a performance of film and music from the series "Environments" by composer and filmaker Phill Niblocks, shot in upstate New York in 1972 and released now for the first time on DVD, a mesmerizing and hypnotic film with two soundtracks: the original 1972 from analog tape, and a 2008 edition from the Nelly Boyd Ensemble updated in 2015 ... Click to View


John McCowen: Mundanas I - V (Edition Wandelweiser Records)

Two clarinetists--John McCowen, also the composer, and Madison Greenstone on clarinet & bass clarinet--taking the title from Boethius' (427-524 AD) printed work on ancient Greek music: "De institutione musica", as they generate long-form drones using the harmonic interactions and interference patterns of similar tones, overtones, and difference tones; impressively intense. ... Click to View


Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon)

The sixth album from guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen's scorching Norwegian instrumental rock trio, having built a strong following through their impressive approach to rock, schooled from both early hard/progressive band but also driving fusion bands, with a penetrating edge in authoritative soloing and intense rhythmic interplay. ... Click to View


Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Smells Funny [VINYL + CD] (Rune Grammofon)

The sixth album from guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen's scorching Norwegian instrumental rock trio, having built a strong following through their impressive approach to rock, schooled from both early hard/progressive band but also driving fusion bands, with a penetrating edge in authoritative soloing and intense rhythmic interplay. ... Click to View


Eugene Chadbourne : Solo Guitar Volume 2-1/3 [VINYL] (Feeding Tube Records)

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The Momes: Spiralling [VINYL LP + 7"] (Mental Experience)

An essential reissue of the only album from this Rock in Opposition supergroup, with two from Henry Cow & The Work--bassist Mick Hobbs and Tim Hodgkinson playing "Hawaiian laptop noisy guitar" and keyboards--and Andy Wake from Unrest Work & Play, in a great set of songs with a literate and post-punk viciousness and unusual approaches to rhythm and sound. ... Click to View


VocColours & Andrei Razin: Ganglia (Creative Sources)

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Ernesto Rodrigues / Guilherme Rodrigues / Miguel Mira / Carlos Santos: Penedo (Creative Sources)

Recorded on New Years Eve in Sintra in the Penedo region of Portugal, three strings--viola from Ernesto Rodrigues, cello from Guilherme Rodrigues, and a second cello from Miguel Mira--are joined by Carlos Santos on electronics for three extended and richly detailed improvisations, active yet concentratively controlled, using impressive and extended techniques. ... Click to View


Vandermark / Wooley / Courvoisier / Rainey: Noise Of Our Time (Intakt)

After reedist Ken Vandermark's residency at The Stone in 2016, he went into the studio with improvisers Nate Wooley on trumpet, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, and Tom Rainey on drums to record this spectacular album of forward-reaching jazz using stunning technique and wonderful lyrical complexity, as they run through compositions from Wooley, Vandermark and Courvoisier. ... Click to View


Kaja Draksler / Petter Eldh / Christian Lillinger: Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (Intakt)

The rhythm section from the Amok Amor quartet--drummer Christian Lillinger and bassist Petter Eldh--and reforming it as a trio with pianist Kaja Draksler, to create a thrilling, twisting and turning band of quick-witted, avant jazz angles, confusing and thrilling with unexpected shifts in direction on an informed, fun-filled and thoroughly modern album. ... Click to View


Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet: Time Like This (Intakt)

NY Bassist Michael Formanek composes for and leads his Elusion Quartet with saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Ches Smith, a heavyweight set of improvisers who take on Formanek's sophisticated and elusive compositions, using unusual meters and complex yet comprehensible structures, performed with prodigious skill and passionate approaches. ... Click to View


Don Byron / Aruan Ortiz: Random Dances & (A)tonalities (Intakt)

Working together since 2014 in larger ensembles, NY reedist Don Byron and Cuban-born, US pianist Auran Ortiz find a modern yet lyrical heat in their duo collaboration in an album that includes original compositions and intimate renderings of pieces by Duke Ellington, Federico Mompou, Geri Allen, and J.S. Bach, a uniquely diverse and wonderfully embraceable release. ... Click to View


Trio Heinz Herbert (Landolt / Landolt / Hanni): Yes (Intakt)

Blending free jazz, electronic music, glitch, and collective improvisation, the Swiss trio of Dominic Landolt on guitar, effects, Ramon Landolt on synth, samples, piano, Mario Hanni on drums, effects bring a modern and experimental edge to their diverse approaches to free improv, albeit tinged with electronica and rock overtones; a fascinating brew. ... Click to View


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (feat. Marilyn Crispell / Evan Parker): Parallel Moments Unbroken [2CDS] (FMR)

Scottland's large improvising ensemble of around 20 musicians, merging backgrounds in free improvisation, jazz, classical, folk, pop, experimental musics and performance art, in a 2-CD release of a piece commissioned by the BBC and featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell and saxophist Evan Parker, written using graphic scores, through composition, photographs and artwork. ... Click to View


Morton Feldman (Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt): Atlantis (Hat [now] ART)

A much-needed reissue of this 2000 CD of three orchestral works from late composer Morton Feldman--"String Quartet and Orchestra" (1973), "Oboe and Orchestra" (1976), and "Atlantis" (1959)--demonstrating the evolution of his incredible control in working with tone, mood and instrumental combinations, from his earliest large-scale work to later mature works. ... Click to View


Fritz Hauser : Laboratorio - Solo Percussion (Hat [now] ART)

Swiss drummer & percussionist Fritz Hauser's solo album creates a fictional percussion center that he uses as as springboard to compose solo works for spaces within the [non-existent] environment, depicted in both spacious and active sound work, generating open-air locations with bird sounds and cymbals and areas of quick-paced activity; absolutely impressive. ... Click to View


Karlheinz Stockhausen : Historic First Recordings of the Klavierstucke I-VIII & XI (Hat [now] ART)

Originally conceived as a cycle of 21 solo piano pieces, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen only completed a section of these Klavierstucke works, eventually transforming the series for synthesizers and electronic instruments; Hat Hut now restores the original recordings from the 50s by the pianist Stockhausen dedicated some of these pieces to: David Tudor. ... Click to View


Roland Dahinden : Talking with Charlie: An Imaginary Talk with Charlie Parker (Hat [now] ART)

Bass clarinetist Gareth Davis asked composer Roland Dahinden to write for his quartet, with Koen Kaptijn (trombone), Dario Calderone (double bass) and Peppe Garcia (percussion), the result this "imaginary talk" with Charlie Parker, captured in a score involving graphic as well as more conventional elements, allowing structure and improvisation for the players. ... Click to View


Howard Riley: Live In The USA (NoBusiness)

The brilliant UK pianist Howard Riley is caught live in a US tour in the fall of 1976, recorded at 3 locations in NYC and in Buffalo, NY, each of the well-recorded improvisation a masterwork of extended form as he plays both outside and inside the piano, ranging from warm sections of lyrical quality to fast-paced streams of consciousness in a Cecil Taylor mode; magnificent. ... Click to View


James Lewis Brandon (Lewis / Branch / Stewart / Pirog / Crudup III): An Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch)

New York tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis leads a quintet with Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, Anthony Pirog on guitar, and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums, in a free jazz album dedicated to Charlie Haden & Ornette Coleman and Surrealism, modern creative music with one foot planted in the 70s and one in the 2010s. ... Click to View


Bloor: Drolleries (Astral Spirits)

Drolleries are small creatures adorning the margins of 13th-15th century illuminated manuscripts; Sam Weinberger is a Brooklyn saxophonist known for groups W-2, and this Bloor project with electric guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, an assertive and rugged trio playing Weinberg's compositions about the perceptual phenomenon of ever-changing repetition. ... Click to View


Bloor: Drolleries [CASSETTE] (Astral Spirits)

Drolleries are small creatures adorning the margins of 13th-15th century illuminated manuscripts; Sam Weinberger is a Brooklyn saxophonist known for groups W-2 and this Bloor project with electric guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, an assertive and rugged trio playing Weinberg's compositions about the perceptual phenomenon of ever-changing repetition. ... Click to View


Dunmall / Siegel / Pursglove / Sanders: As One Does (FMR)

Two saxophones take the front line in Paul Dunmall's 2018 studio album, the leader on tenor saxophone with fellow tenor player Julian Siegel, also on bass clarinet, while Mark Sanders drums and Percy Pursglove handles bass and also trumpet, as the band falls into a hard bop mode, weaving lines together over wonderfully turbulent and soulful grooves; outstanding. ... Click to View


Paul Dunmall / Philip Gibbs / James Owston / Jim Bashford: Inner And Outer (FMR)

Paul Dunmall's 2018 studio album in a quartet with James Owston on bass, Jim Bashford on drums, Philip Gibbs on guitar, and Dunmall on tenor saxophone, Gibbs's hollow-body opening up the band sound as Owston and Bashford trade rapid responses or provide solid grooves, the themes of the dialogs focused on space and time through intricate, complex and profound interaction. ... Click to View


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  Susie's Aria  

Drummer Susie Ibarra Premieres her First Opera


By Steve Smith
Photos by Kurt Gottschalk 2003-06-20

Susie Ibarra Ever since Susie Ibarra burst onto the international jazz scene in the early 1990s, the versatile young percussionist and composer has made it eminently clear that there is no boundary to her artistic vision, nor any assumption she was content to leave unchallenged. As a member of groups led by David S. Ware, William Parker and Matthew Shipp, Ibarra held her own among decidedly heavyweight company in a field still largely dominated by male performers. The ferocious energy and sinuous grace of her drumming cast aside any considerations of gender, as she quickly became a much-demanded collaborator for such leading maverick artists as Derek Bailey, John Zorn and Pauline Oliveros.

Ibarra stepped out on her own as a bandleader in 1999, asserting her growing confidence as a composer. Her fresh, original musical voice bears the influence of jazz, blues, contemporary composition, gamelan and the traditional music of her Philippine heritage. That voice has been manifested in a chamber music-influenced trio, a fiery mainstream jazz quartet and the hypnotically grooving Electric Kulintang project. At the same time, Ibarra has also been active in the free-improv trio Mephista, alongside pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and electronics performer Ikue Mori.

For most performers, the furious pace at which Ibarra's calendar fills up would prove more than sufficient. But for the last year, she was also hard at work on a project that any composer might find daunting, and one that most jazz-related artists would never consider tackling in the course of a career: The 32-year-old composer has just completed her first opera.

Based on a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Shangri-La received its world premiere on June 14 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, New Jersey, produced by Passage Theater Company. Despite its bucolic title, Shangri-La is a challenging work, taking as its subject matter three Western businessmen drawn into the sex trade in Thailand, and their inability to escape the situation in which they find themselves.

The two-hour chamber opera featured a nine-member cast with a traditional Thai vocalist, two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, two tenors, a baritone and a bass-baritone. Noted composer Tania Leon led an ensemble that included regular Ibarra collaborators Craig Taborn on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and Roberto J. Rodriguez on percussion, alongside flutist Thea Reynolds, violinists Meg Okura and Joyce Hammon, violist Carol Cook and cellist Egil Rostad. Ibarra herself did not perform in the piece, for which she supplied a through-composed score that still provides for a degree of improvisatory freedom from the soloists.

Perhaps the most obvious question is why Ibarra would be interested in composing an opera at all. Blame it on her youth: Opera played an important role in Ibarra's childhood. "My mother took me to the opera when I was a kid," she said, her voice animated by a breathless ebullience that colors a conversation generously punctuated by laughter. "She had season tickets. My father's not an opera fan, and my brothers and sisters didn't want to go. I was the youngest, so I would be the one going with her."

For Ibarra, who grew up in Seabrook, Texas, a small town located between Houston and Galveston, this meant seeing first-class performances at Houston Grand Opera, one of the nation's most renowned and ambitious companies. "I grew up seeing incredible productions at Houston Grand Opera. In a way, this project takes me back to my childhood, because I have all these memories of different classical operas."

It was partially that childhood familiarity that led Ibarra to sign onto the current project when Komunyakaa, who conceived Shangri-La, proposed it to her. A Trenton resident and Princeton University professor, Komunyakaa is widely revered for his rhythmic, almost reportorial style. Many of his works have touched on musical themes; one, the epic-length Testimony, based on the life and art of Charlie Parker, was adapted as an opera by Australian jazz composer and saxophonist Sandy Evans for broadcast by the Australian Radio Company in 1999, and staged by the Melbourne Festival at the Sydney Opera House in January of this year.

Ibarra first met Komunyakaa in 1997, and felt an immediate affinity with the Louisiana-born poet. She accompanied him in several readings, and played behind him on Herido, a vibrant, bluesy session Komunyakaa co-led with Dallas-based trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, which was issued by 8th Harmonic Breakdown in 2001. Despite her youthful passion for mainstream operatic lore, however, what attracted Ibarra most to Komunyakaa's project was its thoroughly contemporary subject matter - a refreshing anomaly in a contemporary opera scene still predominately mired in the reheated verismo of recent pieces like Therese Raquin, Little Women and A View from the Bridge.

"Yusef originally had the idea [for the opera] from a magazine article he came upon," Ibarra said. "It mentioned how British and European businessmen were going over to Thailand on sex tours, and how they were committing suicide and never coming back. It's set in Bangkok, but it touches on things that happen in a lot of countries, not just Southeast Asia. This stuff goes on in Cuba, it goes on in Eastern Europe, it happens pretty much everywhere. It's a story about paradise and hell-and how paradise can turn into hell-and it also touches on the AIDS epidemic, which is out of control in the sex trade."

The main character in Shangri-La is John Wong, "a Chinese-American metaphysical detective from San Francisco who is hired to go to Bangkok to investigate an embezzlement scheme," according to Ibarra. The three western businessman are Paul, a middle-aged African-American Vietnam veteran, Eddie, a troubled younger man, and David, the sleazy drug smuggler who is actually guilty of the crime Wong is investigating. Alee is a waitress who has a sideline in translating letters into English. Other characters include three women, Noe, Mana and Pidang, and the Barker, who runs the club. The cast may be unconventional, but the drama that results from their intersection is certainly operatic in scope.

"As musicians, we live with music and sound," Ibarra said. "We write songs, not characters. But writers live with these characters. So I've been living with these characters, and it's been really cool to experience that. Living with these characters for such a long time, they become real, like they're right behind you. It really is fun."

Though it may initially seem far-fetched to imagine an opera written by an avant-garde jazz drummer, for anyone who knows Ibarra's own recordings, it doesn't take a giant leap of imagination to understand why Komunyakaa sensed that she might be up to the challenge. Much of the music she has composed for her trio - particularly the current lineup that features Taborn and violinist Jennifer Choi - combines the rigor and transparency of chamber music with an unmistakable sense of narrative drama.

Increasingly recognized for her work as a composer, Ibarra was recently commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution to compose Lakbay, an extended suite for her trio that was premiered in December at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, in conjunction with an exhibition of photography by Filipino American artist Ricardo Alvarado. Ibarra has been tapped to write two new works for the Kronos Quartet (she will also perform in one of them), and she is also scoring two forthcoming documentariesby Chinese filmmaker Yan Jin.

Still, while Ibarra is not the first jazz composer to take a crack at opera,there have been few predecessors to whom she could turn for inspiration. The best known, of course, is pianist Anthony Davis, whose first opera, X, based on the life of Malcolm X, was produced to widespread acclaim in Philadelphia and New York in 1986. (It's notable, perhaps, that Davis-like his fellow improvisor Ibarra-was drawn to a contemporary subject for operatic treatment.) Davis has since composed three further operas: Under the Double Moon, a science fiction work; Tania, based on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst; and Amistad, detailing the historic slave-ship revolt and subsequent trial.

Other jazz composers have turned to more archetypal allegories for their operatic subjects, such as Leroy Jenkins's Mother of Three Sons, successfully staged by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at Houston Grand Opera and elsewhere, and Anthony Braxton's Trillium R: Shala Fears for the Poor, critically lambasted after its New York premiere. Julius Hemphill employed a still more idiosyncratic approach in his Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, abstaining from using singers altogether. The one thing that unites all of these disparate works, unfortunately, is that none has found a place in the standard repertoire and only three (X, Tania, Trillium R) have been recorded, making it nearly impossible for a young artist like Ibarra to hear and learn from them.

Instead, Ibarra immersed herself in contemporary opera scores and recordings. She cites György Ligeti's dark, surreal Le Grande Macabre as a particular favorite, owing in part to its near-improvisatory freedom of expression. Ibarra admits to having been a bit overwhelmed initially by the notion of composing a work of such scale, particularly in light of her own daunting schedule. "I was intimidated by the fact that it could be quite long!" she said. "To me, time was of the essence. But you just have to break it down, and you just do it-like anything, you just begin.The libretto was written pretty quickly, and I find Yusef's words very musical, so it was really easy for me to write with them."

When she finally began to compose Shangri-La in earnest, the music that poured forth reflected her own personality and that of her collaborator, rather than slavishly imitating any particular past master. "Whatever you do, it's going to sound like you," Ibarra says. "There's an influence of Thai music, both traditional percussion and the classical court style. There's some gong music. And there's definitely a blues influence, because I feel that Yusef's writing is so heavily influenced by the blues. It's really kind of an interpretation of his words."

Given the difficulties and expense involved in mounting operatic productions, it's far too soon to tell what the ultimate fate of Shangri-La will be. Ibarra's prognosis is upbeat, however; Passage Theatre hopes to mount a full-scale production of the work, and presenters in New York City and elsewhere have indicated their interest. Meanwhile, emboldened by the experience of creating the work, Ibarra eagerly envisions an ongoing working relationship with Komunyakaa.

"In an age of specialization, people just concentrate in their own medium," she says. "It used to be that artists were collaborating all the time. We've developed this great collaboration, and we have a lot of other ideas. We work well in this medium, and we get the chance to talk about a lot of important things that I think need to be talked about."



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